December 13, 2013

Transformation Tips

On Christmas Day 2008 I was stranded at the South Pole (SP). As I look back, it seems more like a dream than an actual event.

At the time, I was president of Oakwood University (OU) in the midst of a Running for Scholarships program. I would complete a marathon, then alumni, friends, and businesses supportive of OU and Christian education would donate money to the scholarship fund. The ultimate objective was to accomplish a “Grand Slam”: running a 26.2-mile (42-kilometer) marathon on each of the seven continents and the North Pole. The North Pole is not a continent but a huge ice mass that exists some three months out of the year. After almost three years, the program successfully concluded with the establishment of a Running for Scholarships endowment with $500,000 raised from funds given by OU alumni, board members, vendors, and friends.

The plan to run a marathon at the South Pole was intense but straightforward. We would fly from Atlanta, Georgia, to the southernmost departure point in South America, Puntas Arenas, Chile. There, with 15 other marathoners, I would board a Russian cargo plane departing for the SP. No runway at the SP camp meant we had to have “low winds and high visibility” when landing and taking off on the blue ice landing strip. Once there, our group would stay in tents at a temporary camp called Patriot Hills in temperatures 20 degrees below zero.

If all went well, I would run the SP marathon, cross the finish line displaying a small Bible and U.S. flag, and fly out the following day, arriving home a week before Christmas. That was the plan.

However, as Robert Burns wrote: “The best-laid schemes of mice and men often go awry.” First, inclement weather delayed our departure from Puntas Arenas for three days. When we finally arrived at the SP, we saw what can be described as an almost Martian-like environment: white, cold, still, and endlessly barren ice fields. Then the marathon was delayed a half day because of an unexpected blizzard. When the race finally began, I completed the run in six and a half hours, as opposed to an average of four and a half hours under more hospitable conditions. While unspeakably beautiful, the course was grueling, seemingly unending, and unbelievably cold.

Then the plane that was to return us could not land because of low visibility and high winds. The weather didn’t let up. We were stranded in the South Pole through Christmas Day! After being delayed five days, I finally arrived home a week later than scheduled.

In spite of the frustrating challenges, events unfolded so that Christmas Day was memorable. Persons in the marathon team knew I was a minister, and on Christmas Eve I was asked to give a homily the next day about the birth of Christ. So a pristine Christmas morning found us in the mess hall tent reflecting on the birth of Christ.

It was another bitterly cold morning, with a blizzard having passed through just the night before. The landscape was pure white with a beautiful, cloudless blue sky. The group included an expedition guide who had been to the top of Mount Everest 12 times; experienced mountain climbers there to climb a summit on the South Pole to achieve the seven-summit goal; a group skiing to the South Pole 10 degrees south of where Patriot Hills was located; an explorer filming a documentary about the experience of riding a dogsled solo from the shoreline to 90 degrees south; and, of course, our multinational marathon group.

I spoke about the birth of Christ from Luke 2, and reflected on its simplicity, significance, and saving nature. After I shared, the group had an opportunity to reflect on family, faith, and feelings about what Christmas meant to them. It turned out that no one, other than me, was a professing Christian, even though they all expressed a deep appreciation for the occasion.

Tears and expressions of gratitude for family, life, health, and protection came from this hardened group of adventurers. The experience profoundly and memorably reminded me that the gospel has power wherever it is shared, even in the far reaches of the South Pole.